Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Secret Marx Decoder Ring

All right. As long as I’m here, maybe one brief comment about the thesis. Although generally I’m happy with the revision process, one of the nagging worries I have to keep bracketing relates to the number of times I have to quote a passage from Marx and, effectively, say: “What this means is the opposite of what it seems to literally say…” The thesis, of course, lays out the argument – in possibly too great detail ;-P – for why I interpret passages the way I do, and points out how the text becomes much more explicit about what it’s trying to do as it develops, etc., etc. Still, particularly in chapters where there’s a lot of close textual heavy lifting, I find myself saying this sort of thing so often that I start feeling like I’m writing: “Now examiners! Let’s see what this passage looks like, when we view it through my Secret Marx Decoder Ring!”

The passages from last night’s writing that elicited this reaction particularly strongly were:

Returning to the main line of argument: the interpenetration of these two different social functions confers and elicits a complex combination of social properties, and socially-relevant material properties, in the “same” object. Money is not a unitary social entity, and its multiplicity generates potentials for both practical and theoretical confusion. Marx expresses this by suggesting that the singular name “money” should not disguise the internal multiplicity of the object picked out by this term:

The name of a thing is entirely external to its nature. I know nothing of a man if I merely know his name is Jacob. In the same way, every trace of the money-relation disappears in the money-names pound, thaler, franc, ducat, etc. The confusion caused by attributing a hidden meaning to these cabalistic signs is made even greater by the fact that these money-names express both the values of commodities and, simultaneously, aliquot parts of a certain weight of metal which serves as a standard of money. (195)

The confusion that arises from this concentration of social functions onto a “single” object, however, is not one that Marx believes can be avoided. He argues:

On the other hand, it is in fact necessary that value, as opposed to the multifarious objects of the world of commodities, should develop into this form, a material and non-material one, but also a simple social form. (195)

When Marx speaks of “necessity” here, it is easy to hear this passage in almost idealist terms – as if value as a concept generates its own forms of actualisation. It is also easy to hear this passage in more conventional causal terms – as if value somehow exists separately from its forms of appearance and causes these forms to come into existence. I suggest that, instead, we need to hear this passage in light of Marx’s peculiar pragmatist appropriation of Hegel’s analysis of appearance and essence: Marx is not saying that value has somehow brought money into being out of itself, or caused money, as its form of appearance, to develop these multiple roles. For Marx, as for Hegel, appearance and essence are necessarily related because they are mutually interpenetrating moments of the same substance – value does not subsist separately from its forms of appearance and cannot act on those forms as independent to dependent variable. Appearance is not a medium to look through to see essence, on the other side, existing independently in some separate realm (an error for which Marx criticises classical political economy) – appearance is instead the medium in which essence also exists: essence is an immanent pattern of appearances.

In saying that it is necessary for value to develop into the money form, Marx is therefore saying that the practical combination of these specific social roles in this object is necessary in order for value to be generated as an unintentional pattern in collective practice. Although it is not yet clear in the text how Marx will cash out this claim, he is suggesting here that something about the multiplicity of money facilitates our collective enactment of the supersensible property of value, as a long-term, aggregate statistical tendency that we generate unawares. Value must necessarily “develop into this form” because our practical engagement with this and other such forms is, in Marx’s argument, how we unintentionally generate value.


Marx develops this theme further by exploring the everyday operation of price – which is also analysed as a multiplicity, expressing both the “money-name of the labour objectified in a commodity” (195-196) and “the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances” (196). Marx makes clear in this paragraph that value does not sit outside its form of appearance in price, causing prices to be set according to the socially necessary labour-time required for the reproduction of a particular productive activity. Instead, prices are set according to how much money a commodity can capture in contingent circumstances that may have nothing to do with socially necessary labour-time:

Suppose two equal quantities of socially necessary labour are respectively represented by 1 quarter of wheat and £2 (approximately ½ ounce of gold). £2 is the expression in money of the magnitude of the value of the quarter or wheat, or its price. If circumstances allow this price to be raised to £3, or compel it to be reduced to £1, then although £1 and £3 may be too small or too large to give proper expression to the magnitude of the wheat’s value, they are nevertheless the price of the wheat, for they are, in the first place, the form of its value, i.e., money, and, in the second place, the exponents of its exchange ratio with money. (196)

If circumstances allow it, a commodity’s price may therefore enable it to capture a quantity of gold that requires far more socially-average labour-time to produce than the commodity itself requires. By the same token, circumstances may force a commodity to be exchanged for gold that costs far less socially average labour-time to produce than the commodity did. That a commodity realises more or less than the money equivalent of its own socially average labour-time, does not by itself redetermine the socially average labour-time required for that commodity’s reproduction. Socially average labour-time is determined by conditions of production that do not change automatically because a commodity’s price rises or falls above its value:

If the conditions of production, or the productivity of labour, remain constant, the same amount of social labour-time must be expended on the reproduction of a quarter of wheat, both before and after the change in price. This situation is not dependent either on the will of the wheat producer or on that of the owners of other commodities. The magnitude of the value of a commodity therefore expresses a necessary relation to social labour-time which is inherent in the process by which value is created. (196)

The realised price of a commodity, and the labour-time socially required for the reproduction of that commodity, are therefore described here as factors that are – at any given moment – determined independently of one another: price by contingent circumstances that dictate how much money can be captured in the exchange; and socially average labour-time by the average conditions of production and productivity of labour. Since the magnitude of value is not expressed in any way other than by the price of the commodity, the expression of value is necessarily and inexorably contaminated by all the other contingent factors that affect the amount of money for which that commodity can be exchanged:

With the transformation of the magnitude of value into the price this necessary relation appears as the exchange-ratio between a single commodity and the money commodity which exists outside it. This relation, however, may express both the magnitude of the value of the commodity and the greater or lesser quantity of money for which it can be sold under the given circumstances. (196)

The expression of the magnitude of value is therefore irredeemably contaminated by the universe of factors that can affect the price of a good: the noise of those situational factors makes it impossible to tell how well price expresses the signal of the magnitude of value. Once again, Marx has barred our access to the quantitative determination of essence from the direct observation of the realm of appearance: we cannot know from the price of a good – even once that price has been realised in exchange – what the magnitude of that good’s value is, because the price may express the influence of other contingent factors that opportunistically help or hinder the ability to capture any particular amount of gold.

Marx then argues that this contamination is in fact required in order for price to serve as the adequate form of appearance for value:

The possibility, therefore, of a quantitative incongruity between price and the magnitude of value, i.e. the possibility that the price may diverge from the magnitude of value, is inherent in the price-form itself. This is not a defect, but, on the contrary, it makes the form the adequate one for a mode of production whose laws can only assert themselves as blindly operating averages between constant irregularities. (196)

What is Marx saying here? I have previously suggested that Marx follows Hegel, both in seeing the realm of essences as a realm of laws, and in seeing essence as something that does not subsist in some ontologically separate substance or world from appearances: essence is therefore a pattern that arises in the movements of appearance over time. I have also argued that, by “law”, Marx means a statistical pattern or tendency that becomes visible in the non-random transformation of aggregate phenomena that are observed over time. Marx’s “laws” are less like simple predictive causal determinations, and more like descriptions of socially plausible trends – statistical tendencies that are, however, always subject to counter-tendencies and contingent factors that will affect how historical situations play out on the ground.

Value, I have suggested, is a term that picks out one of these long-term aggregate patterns: value is a category that describes a result of aggregate social behaviour, in the form of a trend or tendency that becomes visible over time. This trend, Marx suggests, has something to do with a compulsion to adopt socially average conditions of production and levels of productivity, such that production requires no more than socially average labour-time.

This compulsion is somehow mediated by price: this is what Marx means by calling price a form of appearance of value – somehow, by interacting with forms of everyday experience like the prices of goods, we collectively enact the long-term pattern that is value. Price “expresses” the magnitude of value by being a practical vector through which this magnitude is constituted in social practice. Price somehow helps to transmit compulsions for production to conform to socially average labour-time.

This compulsion, however, is not transmitted instantaneously: Marx draws attention to this when he distinguishes the factors that, synchronically, determine socially average labour-time – conditions of production and levels of productivity – from those that determine price. Price can deviate at any given instant from the money equivalent of the socially average labour-time currently required to reproduce the production of that commodity. So long as these situational deviations cancel one another out, no compulsion arises, in aggregate, that would redetermine the amount of labour-time, on average, that tends to be devoted to a particular productive activity. If the deviations trend over time in some particular direction, however – regularly capturing more or less money than equivalent to the labour-time currently required on average to reproduce a specific productive activity – this would tend to react back on the organisation of production and the social division of labour. If particular productive activities consistently attract higher prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to expand the volume of those productive activities. If particular productive activities consistently attract lower prices than required to reproduce production at its current level, an incentive would exist to scale back those particular productive activities.

In a situation in which the economy is not consciously planned, rising and falling prices provide an unconscious social signalling mechanism that helps achieve the result that Marx describes it in the opening chapter of Capital:

…all the different kinds of private labour (which are carried on independently of each other, and yet, as spontaneously developed branches of the social division of labour, are in a situation of all-round dependence on each other) are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. (168)

Production develops spontaneously – and therefore speculatively, in the absence of firm knowledge of whether it will succeed in reproducing or expanding itself as an element of the social division of labour. Production takes place without producers knowing for certain whether their labours will get to “count” as part of “social labour” because, in capitalist societies, the social mechanism for including or excluding productive activities from the social division of labour is market exchange — a social process that postdates production itself.

The market therefore culls from among the universe of spontaneous, speculative labouring activities — it “reduces” these activities down to the “quantitative proportions in which society requires them”. This reduction happens, in part, through the signalling mechanism of price, which can fill this role precisely because price deviates from value, as this category might be synchronically defined, as the labour-time socially required to reproduce all the speculative productive activities currently undertaken. Instead, price operates as a signal to society to reallocate its productive energies into new configurations: it signals “the proportions in which society requires” productive energies to be spent, by capturing, over time and on average, sufficient money to reproduce certain productive activities, insufficient money to reproduce others, and surplus money to encourage the expansion of still more.

Seen in this light, “socially average labour-time” takes on a new aspect. In the opening chapter of Capital, this category seemed to refer to socially-average levels of productivity: thus, the value of the product produced by hand loom weavers fell when the introduction of the power loom reset social standards for productivity. By chapter three, it seems clearer that “socially average labour-time” encompasses more than just the average level of productivity: it also captures the aggregate amount of social labour that, on average, should be dedicated to a particular activity. In this system of material production where productivity activities are governed neither by custom nor by a plan, where no individual or group possesses advance knowledge of the productive activities that will be able to serve as use-values via the hurdle of market exchange, production still does not take on a purely random form – long-term aggregate patterns can still be discerned. Price is one of the mechanisms through which such patterns are enacted, without any conscious intention by social actors to effect such patterns. By deviating from “value” – from the socially average labour-time that would be required to reproduce a given synchronic slice of productive activities – prices can, over time, provide incentives for – or compel – the reorganisation of production, so that production gradually tacks to the changing winds of unconscious aggregate social demands for social labour to be apportioned in particular ways.

This is not the entire story. We still do not have a full grasp of the concept of value or the problems Marx intends this concept to help him solve. Immediately following his discussion of how price can deviate from the magnitude of value, Marx begins adding further complications. The first is that things can come to have prices that do not possess value – that are not the products of labour – in any sense:

Things which in and for themselves are not commodities, things such as conscience, honour, etc., can be offered for sale by their holders, and thus acquire the form of commodities through their price. Hence a thing can, formally speaking, have a price without having a value. (197)

This gesture underscores that price does not relate to value as consequence to cause, or as an emanation from an essence. The form – the direct object of social experience – possesses its own reality, its own autonomy, its own impacts and implications – even if our interaction with forms like this, in the current context, also happens to generate the long-term aggregate trend named value. This move is consistent with Marx’s strategy of treating component parts of a larger assemblage as capable of being analysed apart from that assemblage, as possessing their own implications – some of which, like this one, can mislead social interpretations that hypostatise their significance, and some of which – as we will see in later chapters – provide the building blocks from which we could create alternative forms of collective life.


Marx notes that the exchange of commodities for money is an exchange of two commodities, each of which is characterised by an internal opposition between its use-value (for someone else) and its exchange-value (for its owner) (199). Marx argues that this internal opposition is externally expressed by exceptionalising the money commodity out from the universe of other commodities as the universal equivalent:

Commodities first enter into the process of exchange ungilded and unsweetened, retaining their original home-grown shape. Exchange, however, produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and exchange-value which is inherent in it. (199)

As always, the vocabulary of “expression” points back to Marx’s pragmatist appropriation of Hegel: the claim here is not that commodities possess a pre-existent internal division that then somehow causes or emanates into a division in the outside world: any internal or “essential” division within commodities must share the same substance and subsist in the same world as external divisions that present themselves directly to our practical experience of the world of appearance. The claim here is rather that we enact an internal division in commodities through our social practice of differentiating the money-commodity from other commodities. (Marx elsewhere argues that the key practical step takes place when social actors begin producing commodities with the intention of exchanging them, rather than simply exchanging whatever commodities are accidentally in excess of the producers’ needs – from this point, when exchange-value has become a purpose for social activity, the use-value/exchange-value distinction is firmly anchored in practical experience.) The “external opposition” that presents itself to our immediate experience thus constitutes the “inherent internal opposition” whose existence that external opposition is said to express. In Marx’s framework, essence does not precede the existence of its own forms of appearance. Instead, essence is the essence of its form of appearance. Essence and appearance are two moments or aspects of a single dynamic relation.

Okay. Enough fragments. I should note that these passages of text in particular are in a state of flux – in some of these sections, I’m not quite hitting what I’m trying to say yet: revision, revision, revision… Also: apologies in advance if there are comments, and I’m unable to respond to them: I’m generally trying to focus fairly exclusively on the thesis revision process, so am not much online…

More soon. Take care all…


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